A couple of years ago “scientific proof” that male and female brains operate differently was announced. This was quickly followed by general uproar and the accusation that science was “validating sexism”. More recently the original study has been supplemented by more in depth research, which confirmed that the brains of the different sexes are in fact different. However, those differences are very small.
Putting aside the sensational reporting of these findings, the debate is fuelled by something that the raw scientific data fails to acknowledge – culture. In the vast majority of human cultures (and animal ones too), particular roles and attributes are assigned to women, and different ones are assigned to men. The problem tends to arise in that certain roles and attributes are more valued in particular fields (for example different job roles), bias creeps in and prejudice forms. In fact, these social norms are so entrenched that they may be partially (if not fully) responsible for those differences in male and female brain structure.
The aspiration to “succeed” in life is second nature to us humans, with culture now dictating that money, and therefore success at work in order to obtain this, play a huge part. In the workplace, perceived female qualities and roles are unfortunately currently given a lower value. Modern women are prepared to prove this wrong, but the culture remains. This means that in order to achieve so called “success” women must give up to a large extent those qualities which define them as female. In other words, to succeed at work they must become more like men. Cue Marissa Mayer, the atypical “role model” for women in the workplace announcing that she will only take two weeks maternity leave when she gives birth to twins in December.
Yet, whether it’s proved scientifically or not, we are different; physically, and possibly even mentally. Does this matter? The answer of course is no, but what does matter is that until these differences are acknowledged – and reflected in wider society as well the workplace – then equality will not be possible. Until then, questions such as “who makes a better leader, a woman or a man?” cannot be comfortably asked or tested. I believe to a certain extent that women refuse to accept these comparisons because they fear the answer will be men, and in the current society who could blame them?
My mum, who was a strong independent female, told me on numerous occasions that she thought men made better managers than women. Her reason was that she found female bosses acted on the basis of jealousy, and thus were spiteful and back stabbing. Perhaps we would associate jealousy in particular with the female sex. Yet based on my experience I tend not to agree. I’ve met plenty of men who could be just as duplicitous.
Of course, that is mainly down to personality. What about the wider issues of how to lead a team effectively? Neuroscience and organisational studies (see for example The Fear Free Organization) are beginning to hint that leadership qualities traditionally viewed as “female” (such as managing relationships) are more effective at getting the best out of people than performance driven, traditionally “male” qualities. Yet this has not been met with much celebration from women, possibly because they believe, perhaps rightly, that society will never accept this. Although the brain itself is extremely adaptable, it takes time and effort to change. Society and culture, with its many brains, is even less accepting of change. Women in general can only hope that, in time, prominent female business roles models grasp and endorse the idea that we are different, but that doesn’t mean inferior. A different way may even be better.